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Designing Business English programmes 2

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This is the second article in a three part series. In the first part we looked at needs analysis and how to define goals and objectives. This second part looks at how we can design a business English syllabus.

Designing Business English programmes 2 - methodology article

Syllabus design
Once the aims and objectives are established you are ready to define a learning plan.

You should be aware that adult learners:

  • want their learning to be relevant to them
  • pay attention to things that will benefit them
  • learn best when they know why they should learn
  • find it easier to learn when you start with what they know before moving to the unknown and when you move from simple to complex.

As a result, the syllabus is usually negotiated with the students and the organization. By discussing these issues with them, you can decide on the main priorities together, you can identify what activities could be done to foster learner autonomy, you can agree on how progress will be assessed and how you will be giving feedback. The syllabus states the actions to be taken in order to achieve the aims and objectives. It lists what is to be covered during the course and states an order.

But you must remember that this syllabus can be re-negotiated at any time. Sometimes, in the middle of a course, a student asks for help because he/she needs to prepare a presentation for an unexpected trip. It usually is a very dynamic syllabus and you need to be flexible enough to adapt to new and changeable circumstances.

Most business English students need to communicate within a certain context, so the syllabus must reflect the discourse they are confronted with. So, if you know your students are in the corporate finance field and usually have to present figures and results in English you will probably have to include the following items in the syllabus:

  • Dealing with numbers and figures
  • Describing trends
  • Corporate finance vocabulary
  • Understanding and producing financial reports
  • Giving presentations

You will also have to decide what learning activities and tasks can be done to help your students develop their communicative competences further, i.e. their linguistic, socio-cultural and pragmatic competences. (You can refer to the Common European Framework for further information on this). You will select the language items the learner needs to know and concentrate on the content and meaning of the interactions. The syllabus can be organized in many different ways, for example around:

  • Topics: Management, Finance, Technology, etc
  • Business skills: Presentations, Negotiations, Meetings, Socializing, Introductions, Telephoning, Writing reports, Writing business letters
  • Tasks: activities students need to do using the language in order to achieve something

It is like a matrix and usually includes:

  • Lexis: idioms, expressions, vocabulary, etc.
  • Functions: agreeing, disagreeing, giving explanations, taking the floor, interrupting, asking for opinions, etc.
  • Texts: examples of authentic written and spoken texts.
  • Grammar: word order, adverbial phrases, if clauses, verb tenses. For example: to describe trends students need to know when to use the present progressive , the past simple or the present perfect.
  • Learning strategies: recording vocabulary, looking for information
  • Intercultural skills: awareness of different cultures

At this stage you also determine the types of assessments that will be carried out.

Assessment is crucial for the development and success of the course. You will want to know if your students are satisfied with the course, if they are learning what they need, if the organization can see the return on their investment.

There are many things you can do:

Most business students are used to conducting appraisals, reviews and self-evaluations. They will feel at ease when making their language self-assessment. By reflecting on their learning processes students can identify their own strengths, and where they need more help from you. They can see their progress and what communicative task they can successfully perform now.

Continuous assessment
This is a regular analysis of the progress of your students. It is conducted informally and constantly. It is more qualitative than quantitative.

Achievement tests
You design them to check if the objectives have been met. You can use objective and subjective test items. Different test items can be included but they should be aligned to how you deliver the course. They can be task based.  

Task-based assessment
When you assess this way, your focus is on the performance of the task, if your students can successfully convey meaning and get their message across. Your students should know in advance the criteria you will use to asses the performance of the task.

Portfolio assessment
If your course has a strong focus on writing, you can specify what and how many samples of different written tasks they need to include in the portfolio, e.g. a report on the company figures, a report on a specific project, a memo about some new policies, a business letter to a client, etc.

External examinations
Some students may tell you they want to take internationally recognized examinations to certify their business English knowledge, or some organizations request them as a way of implementing global language programmes. There are many business English examinations offered by different examination boards. Some tests' scores represent different degrees of success rather than passing or failing grades, e.g. English Language Skills Assessment (ELSA - London Chamber of Commerce and Industry - LCCI ), Test Of English for International Communication (TOEIC - Educational Testing Service - ETS ). Other tests require students to achieve a certain level in order to pass, e.g. Spoken English for Industry and Commerce (SEFIC - LCCI), English for Business (EFB - LCCI), Business English Certificate (BEC - Cambridge). They are available at different levels.

For further reading on syllabus design:


When designing the syllabus it is crucial to negotiate the content and types of assessment with your students. In this part of the article we have looked at what we can include in our syllabus and how we can develop it. In the third part, we will discuss how to select suitable material, some things to take into consideration when delivering the course and how we can evaluate the whole programme.


  • A Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment - Council of Europe (2001) Cambridge University Press.
  • English Next - David Graddol (2006) British Council
  • Curriculum Development in Language Teaching - Jack C. Richards (2001) Cambridge University Press.
  • Second Language Teaching & Learning - David Nunan (1999) Heinle & Heinle Publishers.
  • Teach Business English - Sylvie Donna (2000) Cambridge University Press.
  • How to Teach Business English - Evan Frendo (2005) Pearson Education Limited


Mercedes Viola Deambrosis, Director, 4D Content English